How to Live on $1100 a year
A man in a knit sweater with full beard enters through the garage door at Derailer Bicycle Coop. His tattered appearance would indicate he’s one of the many homeless who come here to build or repair a bike, but Joe is there nearly every week to volunteer. He speaks softly and every few minutes when the light rail passes by, he stops and waits before he continues speaking. Joe (who asked that his last name be left out) spends his time like a rich, retired man volunteering, studying or being with friends. Only he’s not even 40.
Joe’s budget is meticulous, a single bar graph with dollars on the left and years underneath, and each bar with colors that correspond to a category. The total is written at the top. Above 2011 the number reads $1669.67, the highest since the first year listed, 2006. Total, it’s $1100 spent a year, and the chart tracks every penny.
“My yearly average is about that of an average Nigerian, my low years like an average Pakistani, and my high years like an average Philippino,” Joe says, holding the hair growing out of his chin. Needless to say, cost of living is a little higher here than in the countries listed, so how is it possible?
The first major obstacle is food. As Joe sees it, “The amount of food thrown out daily in America could be characterized as criminal.” Not all food thrown away is trash, “I’m not talking about rotten vegetables and moldy bread, but ripe produce, fresh bread, fresh eggs and milk, in-date packaged goods, freshly prepared restaurant entrees, pizza, fresh meats, bags of brown rice, juice, and tea,” Joe lists his finds. Many places will give food away at the end of the day if you simply ask, particularly bakeries. Grocery stores have to toss anything with damage to the package, even if it’s perfectly good. Forty to fifty percent of all food in the US is wasted according to research done by Jeff Harrison at the University of Arizona. Many places are increasing restrictions on food give always because it’s a liability. Usually that food can be found well wrapped in the trash, uncontaminated by other waste. For more on “dumpstering” check out the documentaries: Dive!, I love Trash, From Dumpster to Dinner Plate, and The Leftovers. To the skeptics, Joe says, “we eat really well. We have two refrigerators and they’re usually full,” referring the community he lives with.
Joe and his community make friends with contractors or private owners who need security. Currently, they share a house in Denver that’s being remodeled and they only pay utilities, “The owner just wants us to water the trees,” Joe says. In other cities, Joe lived in an active construction site, a house waiting to be renovated, and a mansion whose owner was patient for his price. He spent one winter, the coldest in a decade he says, camped in the woods outside New York City, “I remember feeling so happy sometimes as I made my way through the snow and through the still woods to our hidden nesting place, so very thankful for this way of life.” Nearly all of Joe’s homes in the last 17 years have been shared. “The ‘me-first’ generation has underrated communal living to its own loss.”
“Living in community allows us to do more while spending less. Our knowledge and resources are pool as well. Some of us know car mechanics or carpentry, while others may know electrical or plumbing basics. A lot of us know bicycles and a lot of know sewing.” The community uses their skills to provide for each, but also to make what little income they do earn. Together they find valuable trash to repair and sell. “At the end of each calendar month when thousands of Americans move out of their apartments I’m able to find necessities including clothing, electrical appliances like blenders and microwaves, shoes, sheets, backpacks, clocks, lamps,” Joe explains. “I find bike parts behind bike shops, camping goods behind camping stores and office supplies behind office supply stores- Office Max is often the best,” he adds. The items can then be sold at flea markets or pawn shops for cash. Recently, Joe and his friends made a collective $1500 at a flea market by selling old goods they had found.
There are obvious sacrifices to living so modestly like phones and computers, but there are always libraries. For Joe the benefits outweigh the sacrifices. For him, time is more important than possessions or a full bank account. He wants time to invest in what matters, things like relationships, his community and helping people out. Besides volunteering at Derailer, Joe serves meals to the homeless with Food Not Bombs. “We spend a lot of time just enjoying the day, or simply being together,” says Mike, a close friend of Joe’s and part of the same community.
Joe is adamant that his choices are not burdening society in any way, “We accept no government hand-outs: no food stamps, no social security, no section 8, no nothin’. We don’t rely on soup kitchens or shelters. In 17 years I’ve never slept in a shelter.” This lifestyle is an easy choice for Joe because it embodies the most important truths in his life. Joe is a believer and follower of Jesus, and he sees his lifestyle reflected in the scripture. He references Jesus’ lifestyle in the Gospels, and the early church’s in Acts. He quotes from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) and first Timothy (chapter 6).
Joe credits God for providing, quoting from Matthew 19, “And everyone that hath forsaken house…or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredthfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.” There are also the practical benefits, trash is being saved from sitting in the dump, and as Joe say, “you won’t find anyone with a smaller carbon footprint.”
Joe’s equation is simple, “the less I spend=less I have to earn. The less I have to earn= more free time to do what I believe meaningful.”
“Life doesn’t have to be as we’re taught and raised. Society could take any sort of direction, for better or for worse. A 40-hour work week, a living wage, rent, the gloomy banking system, these are all man-made constructs which ought to be reevaluated. Do our lives really need to revolve so much around our income? Is your daily job really very meaningful? Do you really think it’s what you were made to do, the very purpose of you existence?”